Robots’ understanding of human speech can be a bit hit and miss at the best of times, but a team of researchers at RMIT University are hoping to give machines a better grasp on the emotional aspect of language.
“There’s always an emotional context when we talk to people and we understand it, but machines don’t understand this,” project lead Associate Professor Margaret Lech said.
“When we call an automatic call centre, for example, people get very frustrated because they talk to the machine and it does not understand that they are sad, they are anxious, that they want things to be done quickly.”
Lech said robots’ inability to pick up on subtle shifts in tone, volume and speed that convey emotion compound users’ frustration with machines in a variety of industries.
She and her team from RMIT’s School of Engineering have spent 11 years working on machine learning techniques to allow technology to understand human emotions from speech signals and analyse or predict patterns of emotional interactions in human conversations.
Voice-activated devices equipped with these capabilities would thus be able to understand both the semantic and emotional contents of speech to provide more appropriate responses.
So far the machine learning tool can pick up on seven human emotions: anger, boredom, disgust, fear, happiness, sadness, and also emotional neutrality.
Emotion recognition could result in more varied applications for voice recognition technology, and enhance users’ experiences with those services, Lech said.
“People will accept machines more, they will trust machines, they will have the feeling that the machine really understands them and can help them better.
“People, especially the elderly, will not be so reluctant to use automatic call centres. Then we can employ machines, for example, robots as companions.
“An older person may like actually talking to a machine and hear that the machine can laugh with her, can sympathise, and understand her feelings. It could also be good if used for kids’ toys. Children will interact with robotic toys that can talk emotionally, so children will learn more about emotions.”
Now we just have to wait for platforms like Spotify and Netflix to adopt the technology to suggest things we’re actually in the mood to play.